Staring at grim reality
With only about 27,000 wild elephants remaining in the country – against a million a decade ago – India’s jumbos are heading towards a worrying future
India is one of the 17 megadiverse countries of the world. It is home to 7-8 per cent of the world's recorded species – from top predators such as the Asiatic lions, Bengal tigers to large herbivores such as the Asian elephant and one-horned rhino.
This rich fauna has not just been an integral part of India's environmental history but has also been instrumental in shaping several indigenous cultures. In fact, many religions in India stem from animism, which entails that the soul exists in animals and plants.
Today, however, this intimate connection of India with its wildlife seems to have been lost as it is increasingly being sacrificed for the sake of development of the economy. The shifting narrative can be perfectly encapsulated by the current situation of Asian elephants.
Elephants have enjoyed a special place in India's culture and tradition. They were used as a means of transport for the royalties and to fight battles, as has been captured by various frescoes.
Most important, however, is the status of the elephant as a deity in the form of Lord Ganesha. For over 70 per cent of the people in the country, elephants hold religious importance.
According to this, one might presume that India's elephants enjoy a high degree of protection. While elephants do enjoy the highest status in the Wildlife Protection Act of India, 1972, as Schedule-I species, unfortunately, the situation on the ground paints a different picture altogether.
It is disappointing to learn that today only about 27,000 wild elephants remain in India, as opposed to a million a decade ago, according to research. There has been a 98 per cent nose-dive in the wild elephant population.
India is home to over 50 per cent population of Asian elephants in the world, making it the last stronghold of the species. However, their condition seems dire, as they face an all-encompassing threat such as shrinkage of their forest ranges, habitat defragmentation, poaching for their body parts and captivity, and anthropogenic pressure.
It has become commonplace nowadays to read about deaths of wild elephants, or even the ill-treatment meted to captive elephants.
Wildlife SOS, established in 1995, started working with elephants in 2010 to save the species in India. The initial efforts of the project were focussed on rescuing captive elephants across India that were facing severe abuse and cruelty by their captors.
Captivity of elephants is easily associated with the cultural history of India and is treated as an acceptable practice. However, this cultural narrative tends to mask the sad reality of the illegal live elephant trade that takes place across India.
In captivity, an elephant tends to face unfavourable and stressful conditions which greatly hampers their physical and mental well-being. Captive elephants are routinely found to be suffering from health issues such as foot-rot, arthritis and compromised nutrition.
These elephants are worked to the point of exertion and once their health problems hinder their locomotion, they are disposed. Breeding of elephants in captivity is extremely difficult, which means that the capture of another elephant sustains this trade.
Over the course of the last decade, we have been able to facilitate the rescue of over 25 elephants. In a first in the country, Wildlife SOS established an Elephant Conservation and Care Centre (2010) and an Elephant Hospital (2018) in Mathura, Uttar Pradesh.
At these facilities, the distressed elephants get a second chance at life and educational tours are conducted to sensitise people about the conservation of elephants and the need to save this magnificent species.
There are 2,454 captive elephants in India, according to the census conducted by Project Elephant in 2018. This number is likely to decrease as the elephants will subsequently age and the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972, forbids the capture of new calves to keep the captive elephant population afloat.
Access to veterinary aid is a rarity for most keepers. Often, simple injuries become chronic due to untimely or lack of treatment. It is, thus, imperative to improve the living conditions of these animals.
Keeping this in mind, Wildlife SOS has been bringing critical medical aid to distressed elephants via means of its mobile veterinary unit. This service has been extended to both wild and captive elephants alike in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, UP, Uttarakhand and Kerala.
Outreach to keepers is also an essential component of improving the lives of captive elephants, who often do not get an exposure to learn the developments in the keeping of the animals. Wildlife SOS has also been engaging with elephant keepers across different states to sensitise them about humane management of elephants to improve their lives.
Loss of habitat
Another big challenge that elephants in India face is the increasing space crunch. With an exploding population, more and more invasions are being made into the historical habitats of elephants, which has led to increasing habitat fragmentation.
For large herbivores such as elephants who consume an equivalent of 5-10 per cent of their body mass in terms of food, they require large swathes of forests to sustain their herds and migrate to continuously feed and to also give a chance for the vegetation to regrow.
However, shrinking forests means lesser availability of food, which incentivises the movement of elephants out of forested lands to croplands. Thus, they indulge in crop-raiding, which brings them into conflict with people. This often ends with both humans and elephants dying, and a quick change in the discourse of elephants takes place as they become 'nuisances' from 'deities.'
Human-elephant conflict (HEC) in bare terms is a problem of co-existence in a space-limited world. Since 2018, the Wildlife SOS team has been working to mitigate HEC in Chhattisgarh where a herd of 19 elephants have taken permanent refuge in the nearby forested land.
An early warning system has been created to alert the villages beforehand when the herd approaches the villages and croplands. The team also works extensively with the communities in the two districts to teach them essential ways to avoid HEC and to participate in the conservation of elephants.
Over 90 villagers from eight villages through these workshops have volunteered to become part of the Haathi Mitra Dal. With HEC becoming a norm, learning to co-exist is the holistic strategy that will safeguard the future of elephants in India.
Today, as our physical world is changing fast, it is important to take a moment to reflect on and reinvent our relationship with elephants.
Conservation and welfare of elephants in India provide us with a critical lens to develop holistic policies that work both for humans as well as animals. Tied to the survival of elephants in India is the survival of India's biodiversity!
(The author is a co-founder of Wildlife SOS and a member of the IUCN Bear Specialist Group, Wildlife Crime Control Bureau, Central Zoo Authority. The views expressed are strictly personal)